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Stage Review : 'Tamara': New Route To Dramatic Respect

March 06, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

A common report on a long-running show is that it's gone downhill. "Tamara," on the other hand, is just as outrageous as when it opened last spring--and rather more convincing.

This is the play where the audience walks through the story, which takes place in an excellent imitation of an Italian villa on North Highland Avenue. We had found the original version more fascinating for its decor (Art Deco with Mussolini touches) than for its ultra-trashy characters and dialogue.

But a return visit to Il Vittoriale the other night left us more respectful of "Tamara's" claims to drama, for two reasons.

The first was that this time we took a different route. John Krizanc's play suggests a three-dimensional chessboard, with action on every floor. The viewer chooses what room he wants to snoop into next. Our choices on that first night all seemed to involve musky ladies fending off (or not fending off) decadent men, notably the baldheaded master of the villa, the poet-revolutionary Gabriele d'Annunzio.

Our second viewing revealed the political aspects of the story. One reason d'Annunzio is so hot for his female guests is that he hasn't any other way left to prove that he exists. Mussolini has entombed him in these marble halls. This time, we saw d'Annunzio offered a chance to escape by a certain member of the household working for the Communist cause. And we stumbled on the identity of the fascist insider who is making sure that d'Annunzio stays confined to house arrest--a secret we wouldn't reveal for the price of a new Bugatti.

Not that any of this makes "Tamara" a profound story. But it does add a social context and a certain pathos to the general worthlessness of its characters. If they once suggested Joan Collins and her bunch, they now suggest the crowd in "La Dolce Vita"--tacky, but a tad more human.

The second reason "Tamara" had more conviction this time was that the acting had more flavor. The original cast was first-rate, but less smoky and spoiled than this crew. William Schallert as the dilettante composer, for example, had a dry, whimsical elegance. His successor, Jack Heller, is no less suave, but murkier of heart, more of a brooder. Keep your eye on him.

Two of Hollywood's beautiful people have joined the party, Karen Black and Anjelica Huston. Each knows what gold fork to use and which lamp to throw.

Black also plays the piano prettily enough to pass as a former concert artist. She gave the saddest little sigh the other night as she looked up from the keyboard and realized that she was providing background music for d'Annunzio's (Ben Hammer) latest seduction across the room. One had to be standing very close to Black to hear that sigh. Such are the privileges of environmental theater.

Huston plays the painter Tamara like a thoroughbred, the one person in the story who hasn't been stifled by the hothouse atmosphere of Il Vittoriale. She strides through the action like nobility, contemptuous of this cut-rate decadence, yet not without hidden purposes of her own. It's a bold and alluring performance.

Two holdovers from the original company provide rock-solid support: Marilyn Lightstone, as d'Annunzio's not exclusively lesbian housekeeper, and Leland Murray, as d'Annunzio's valet, who clues the audience in on the rules of the game and also chats with us during the sumptuous intermission spread from Ma Maison. Both performers drew very high duty in this show, but you would never know it from their smiles . . . which you are not to trust.

Robert Checchi's decor and Gianfranco Ferre's costumes remain wonderfully overdone--everything you've suspected about fascist taste but never thought you'd see firsthand. A coffee table magazine recently printed a color spread on the real Il Vittoriale. Our version is, if anything, classier.

The champagne as we mingled in the lobby before the show--having had our passports stamped by an insulting blackshirt (Paul Lukather)--isn't bad either. It's true that the experience costs up to $75 a person (depending on the night of the week). But it is an experience, which can't always be said for theater with loftier intentions. "Tamara" knows what it's doing, and is doing it even better these days than it did before.

'TAMARA' John Krizanc's play, at Il Vittoriale. Executive producer Moses Znaimer. Producer Barrie Wexler. Director Richard Rose. Production design Robert Checchi. Costumes Gianfranco Ferre. Original music William Schallert. Costume coordination Diana Eden. Choreography and fight direction Gary Mascaro. Assistant director Phil Killian. Casting Dan Guerrero, Barbara Claman, Paul Bengston. Refreshments Ma Maison. General management Theater Now Inc. Production stage manager Walter Wood. With Bruce Abbott, Karen Black, Catherine Fries, Sue Giosa, Ben Hammer, Jack Heller, Anjelica Huston, Marilyn Lightstone, Paul Lukather, Leland Murray. Plays Tuesday-Sunday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30. Tickets $45-$75. 2035 N. Highland Ave., 851-3771.

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